Bending the Linear toward the Circular
Which Sub-Saharan African Nation Will be Most Consequential?
6 min read

Which Sub-Saharan African Nation Will be Most Consequential?

Which Sub-Saharan African Nation Will be Most Consequential?

I ran three little polls on my twitter account last week, seeking people's opinion as to what will be the most consequential country 30 years from now – in Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the world. By “consequential,” I don't necessarily mean “largest.”

The polls were not meant to seek – or capable of seeking -  rigorous, statistical valid results. But I got some valuable responses, and some private input from a few people, enough to help me make some observations.

I'll focus on the African poll at the moment.

For Africa, I listed four places – Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Kenya/Tanzania, and South Africa. Each of the four got votes, with Nigeria coming out on top, and each had backing in input I received from colleagues.

Below is how I see the case for consequentiality for each of the four. I am viewing them through the lens of climate change and ability to create a sustainable economy, because without clear progress toward emissions reduction and a sustainable economy, no country will be able to assert consequential leadership in the coming decades.

Nigeria. Western Africa's heavyweight caught and then surpassed South Africa as the continent's biggest economy some time ago. Its per-person (per capita) wealth is still less than half of South Africa's, but its overall economy now exceeds $500 billion annually, putting Nigeria easily into the Top 30 economies of the world. Nigeria is the most populous African nation, and is now one of only seven countries in the world with more than 200 million people.

As far as emissions goes, Nigeria produces only 2% of the total of the United States, and only 20% of its closest population peer, Brazil. But less than 20% of its electricity generation is renewable at the moment, and its ongoing socioeconomic malaise results in the country facing one of the ten most difficult paths to sustainability in the world, according to our research at Tau Global Research.

Nigeria's Eko Atlantic project places it among a small group of countries that's trying to build an ambitious megacity from scratch, in an effort to attract more capital, visitors, and overall interest in what the nation has to offer. But this nation will have to eliminate its economic dependence on oil exports and reputation for inequity and corruption internally if it is to address its sustainability challenge and emerge as Africa's most consequential country some day.

Dem. Rep. of Congo. This most tragic of nations, now also simply called “Congo,” is named after the colossal river that passes through much of it. The country has historically shared the Congo name with a much smaller country just north of it; both countries were colonized by French-speaking countries, but maintain separate identities to this day.

Congo remains one of the richest areas in the world in terms of natural resources, in the same league as the giants Russia, China, Canada, the United States, Brazil, and Australia. Its wealth in commodities has led to its brutal exploitation over the past 140 years or so, first by a Belgian king, then the Belgian nation in cahoots with large companies, and more recently by anyone who can invest in it and extract from it. A series of murderous civil and regional wars in the past 30 years have made it almost impossible to function to any sort of norm.

Africa's largest country in area, Congo encompasses more than 900,000 square miles, making it larger than Mexico and 75% the size of India. Its population of around 90 million people places it in the world's top 20. Its criminally low income of around $600 per person annually places its overall economy around 90th in the world, comparable to much smaller Serbia or Uruguay.

Yet the Congolese have created a vibrant culture that they export wherever they go, whether in Europe, China, or elsewhere. There is a nominal democracy in place at the moment, built around a new Constitution created in 2006, with a president, prime minister, and bicameral legislature. Although Congo remains near the bottom of our Tau Index research in terms of dynamism, its minuscule CO2 footprint (only 5% of Nigeria which is itself only 2% of the US) brings hope that it could possibly, maybe, perhaps, somehow emerge as a sustainable leader 30 years down the road.

Congo remains the great hope to emerge as the real-world Wakanda, a place that could serve as the great Central African rival to Nigeria a few hundred miles to its northeast.

Kenya/Tanzania. I lumped these two neighbors together in my poll, because they are often viewed as a strategic pair of nations due to their physical proximity, even as they differ substantially in other ways.

Kenya emerged in the 1960s as a beacon of hope for Africa. It fell into decline and now has re-emerged as a place of interest to investors and other developers. It ranked at the top of African nations in our Tau Index research in 2017, although its momentum has slowed from its peak.

Tanzania has often been described to me as more entrepreneurial than Kenya. This is meant as a compliment, not as some ironic reference to corruption. Its population of 60 million is slightly larger than its neighbor's 54 million. Its socioeconomic progress as measured by our Tau Index places it slightly ahead of Kenya at the moment, and among the leaders (along with neighboring Rwanda) among the 22 least-developed nations (LDCs) that we measure.

Tanzania's economy is actually significantly smaller than its neighbor's, with an average income of $1,100 resulting in a GDP of about $60 billion; compare this to $2,100 and about $110 billion in Kenya.

Both nations seem highly invested in the East African Community (EAC) and its ultimate vision of creating a large, unified East African nation. (Significantly, Congo is also being considered for membership in the EAC). The EAC was one of the products of the idealistic 1960s, fell onto hard times, and then was revived in the year 2000.

The two nations face differing challenges when it comes to emissions reduction and getting on the road to sustainability. Both have underdeveloped grids at the moment; Kenya is a world leader in renewable energy while Tanzania is less so. Both emit similar amounts of CO2. Tanzania is more dynamic and perceived as slightly less corrupt than Kenya, so has an edge in the difficulty of the challenge it faces in becoming a sustainable leader.

With a combined population similar to that of Congo and half of that of Nigeria, with more dynamic economies, these two nations will be a lot of people's picks to be the most consequential nations in Africa over the next 30 years.

South Africa. Since the abolition of apartheid in the early 1990s, South Africa has lost its place as the continent's largest economy, while working to gain moral leadership on the emerging continent. South Africa has close to 60 million people and a per-person income of about $6,000 annually, a few times higher than the other nations mentioned in this post. It has worked to focus on its technology sector and lessen its economic dependence on diamonds and other mining activities.

South Africa finishes among the Top 40 most dynamic countries in our Tau Index research, in a group that includes India, France, Uruguay, and Morocco. Its hosting of the soccer World Cup in 2010 was the first and only time an African nation has hosted a global event of this caliber. It retains strong military forces; though it has no serious conflicts with other nations, South African forces have been used to try to mediate some of the horrendous violence that's been part of Central and Eastern Africa over the past couple of decades.

South Africa has seen growing inequity and violence in its most recent years. It continues to lead the continent in received foreign direct investment (FDI) with about $150 billion over the years, a few tens of billions ahead of Nigeria.

More importantly, the country is a major CO2 emitter, ranking 14thin the world, on a par with the big, major countries Turkey, Mexico, and Indonesia. It has very little renewable power and faces a dire emissions reduction challenge, falling into the group facing the world's most difficult challenges.

For South Africa to emerge as the most consequential nation in Africa over the next 30 years will take a much stronger effort toward sustainability and building a more equitable society than it has been able to accomplish in the past several years.

My little poll covered all of Sub-Sahara Africa's major regions: Western Africa (Nigeria), Central Africa (Congo), Eastern Africa (Kenya/Tanzania), and Southern Africa (South Africa). In the end, rather than having a single, central consequential leader, the African continent is so vast that it seems likely that each region will have its own nation or two of high consequence.